What is a Waterfowl Production Area?

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Smith Lake Waterfowl Production Area (WPA). The primary purpose of WPAs is to protect wetlands and grasslands for waterfowl (ducks, geese, and swans).  

Waterfowl production areas, or WPAs, are little known, but important components of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Like refuges, they protect habitat for wildlife, but the primary purpose of WPAs is to protect wetlands and grasslands for waterfowl (ducks, geese, and swans). For that reason, WPAs are located primarily in the Prairie Pothole Region of North America.

Why the Prairie Pothole Region? The Prairie Pothole Region is an area of the northern Great Plains often called the “Duck Factory” of North America. The southern reach of the region is in central Iowa and it extends northwest through Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, and into Canada. 

Historically, the Prairie Pothole Region included expansive grasslands and thousands of shallow wetlands known as “potholes.” These potholes were formed by glaciers thousands of years ago. This mosaic of wetlands and grasslands was ideal for waterfowl because ducks and geese need both grassland and wetland habitats to nest and raise their young. 

Through the years, more than half of the wetlands found in the Prairie Pothole Region have been drained for agriculture and development. In response to these losses, the Migratory Bird Conservation Act (commonly known as the Duck Stamp Act) was passed in 1934. This act requires waterfowl hunters to purchase a Duck Stamp. Proceeds from the Duck Stamp go toward the purchase or lease of wetland habitat by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

In 1958, the Duck Stamp Act was amended to create the “Small Wetlands Program.” Under this program, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can use Duck Stamp dollars to purchase land – primarily in the Prairie Pothole Region – to protect remaining wetlands and grasslands for breeding waterfowl. The areas purchased through this program are called, appropriately, waterfowl production areas (WPA). 

Still, WPAs protect much more than just waterfowl populations. WPAs protect native plants, provide habitat for many resident and migratory wildlife, help filter groundwater, control runoff and flooding, and capture carbon from the atmosphere. 

In 1962, to help effectively manage the growing number of WPAs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service created an administrative organization called a wetland management district (district). In addition to actively managing all the WPAs in a multi-county area, district staff also works closely with private landowners, government and nongovernment organizations, business, and other federal agencies to improve wildlife habitat. 

Northwest Montana Wetland Management District Flathead County is part of the 5% of WPAs not found in the prairie wetlands of the Dakotas, Minnesota and eastern Montana. Western Montana WPAs serve an important role for migrating birds. Wetlands are scarce in the drier Intermountain West which means they play an even more important role for millions of water-dependent birds that migrate through or nest in western Montana.